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The history and making of paper: How it affects the environment

By Mansi Jain,

Paper is used every day for so many things that we don’t think about a world without it.

The entire process, from planting a seedling to buying a notebook, takes a very long time.

Paper is an essential part of everyday life. Primarily used for writing and printing purposes, paper is what launched the advent of free-flowing access to information and education. The invention of paper is a historical landmark in human civilisation. Here is the chain of events that led to the invention of paper as we know it now: 

  • The Egyptians came up with the first ever form of paper, the Papyrus, which came from a 4.5 meter plant, by cutting the stalk into thin strips, pressing them together and drying them into the long rolls.  
  • In Greece, Rome and Egypt, wood tablets covered in beeswax became a popular writing material. 
  • The Romans took the next step, making books with papyrus pages. Special manuscripts used pages made of treated calf skin. 
  • A little more than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese invented a different kind of paper. It was made from the hemp plant, washed and soaked in water until it was soft and then beaten into a gooey pulp with a wooden mallet and smoothed into a flat frame to dry.  
  • Another 800 years later, Europeans came up with another version of paper. They cut up, soaked and treated linen and cotton rags. A half a century later, in 1690, the first rag-paper mill came to the American Colonies. 

How is paper made? 
As people used more and more paper, rags grew scarce. There were more trees than rags, so trees became the raw material. This is how paper is made to this very day. Loggers cut trees and the raw wood has to be turned into pulp. This pulp is made up of wood fibres and chemicals that are mixed together. The pulp is sprayed onto large mesh screens. This creates a mat of pulp that then goes through several processes to have the water removed. It is then dried out to make paper. The entire process, from planting a seedling to buying a notebook, takes a very long time. Just growing the trees takes 10 to 20 years. 

How it affects the planet 
Making tons of paper from trees can harm the planet. It takes 24 trees to make one ton of paper, which is about 200,000 sheets. Humans cut down 80,000 to 160,000 trees around the world every day, and use many of them to make paper. This massive deforestation causes a loss of habitat and contributes to climate change. The concentration of greenhouse gasses increases and many animals and birds lose their homes. It endangers numerous species and brings them closer to extinction. 

Recycling and alternatives 
Paper is used once or twice but can be recycled up to 7 times. This helps in decreasing the need for excessive cutting down of trees in forests. There is also a plethora of digital alternatives that now exist and can easily replace paper.  

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